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Biographical entry Hanlon, C Rollins (1915 - 2011)

Hon FRCS 1983; MD Johns Hopkins 1938; FACS 1953.

8 February 1915
Baltimore, Maryland, USA
3 May 2011
Kenilworth, Illinois, USA
Cardiovascular surgeon


C Rollins Hanlon, known to almost everyone as 'Rollo', was a pioneering cardiac surgeon who, through his personal charm and outstanding devotion to the American College of Surgeons, became one of the most admired and well-loved surgeons in the United States.

He was born in Baltimore, the sixth of eight children, to Irish-Catholic parents, who instilled in him a love of literature and a strong religious faith, which persisted throughout his life. He attended Loyola High School and then Loyola College, majoring in classics before switching to science. He entered Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1934 and graduated in 1939. He became an intern at Hopkins and then proceeded to Cincinnati General Hospital, where he completed his surgical residency, which included a year in San Francisco learning neurosurgery. In 1944 he entered the US Navy and served in the Far East on the hospital ship Repose.

Discharged from the Navy in 1946, he came under the influence of Alfred Blalock at Hopkins, and was appointed first to a cardiac research post and then to a residency in cardiac surgery. He became an assistant professor in 1948 and was promoted to associate professor in 1950, during which time he developed with his mentor the Blalock-Hanlon operation for transposition of the great vessels.

His reputation as a cardiothoracic surgeon and innovator was established, and at the early age of 35 he was recruited as the first full-time professor in a clinical department at Saint Louis University, Missouri. Here he established a major research unit investigating the effects of denervation of the heart, then thought to be a potential barrier to cardiac transplantation. A stream of publications on this and other areas of cardiovascular research flowed from his department over the years. He was early into open heart surgery when the heart-lung machine was developed and was among the first in the US to perform open cardiac operations.

During his time at St Louis he was elected president of the Society of University Surgeons, the American Society for Vascular Surgery and the Society of Clinical Surgery. He was a founding member of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery and a member and then chairman of the American Board of Surgery.

In 1967 Rollo was elected as a governor of the American College of Surgeons, and two years later became a regent. In 1969, at the pinnacle of his academic career, he was appointed full-time director of the American College of Surgeons, which meant him leaving Saint Louis and relocating to Chicago and Washington. The rest of his long life was spent working tirelessly to promote the College and its varied activities throughout the USA, emphasising in particular the importance of upholding the highest ethical principles in surgical practice.

In 1981 he was elected president of the American Surgical Association, perhaps the highest recognition in American surgery of academic achievement and professional standing. His presidential address was titled 'The surgical presidency' (Ann Surg. 1982 Sep;196[3]:233-8), as befitted someone who had been president of so many organisations.

It was no surprise that when he stepped down as director of the American College of Surgeons he was elected to the presidency, a post he held with distinction. For the next 25 years he acted as an unpaid executive consultant to the American College, and remained in this role until his death. He was the 'voice of continuity', and a source of wise counsel to his successors, all of whom looked to him for advice and guidance when difficult problems arose.

Rollo also held the post of emeritus professor of surgery at Northwestern University, where he taught ethics to medical students, and continued to write and speak on socioeconomic issues and medical history. Unsurprisingly, he received many honorary degrees and fellowships, and in 2010 was uniquely honoured by the American College of Surgeons with the first lifetime achievement award, reflecting the esteem in which he was held.

Rollo was widely read in contemporary literature, the classics and religion, and regularly laced his many lectures with literary and historical references. He was a rare example of a surgeon who had crossed the bridge between surgical science and the humanities, as a result of his lifelong study of philosophy, religion and humanism.

His private life was lovingly shared with Margaret (Peg) Hammond, a paediatrician, whom he married in 1949. They had eight children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They were a devoted couple, always seen as a pair at functions, always elegantly dressed, and were gracious hosts to visitors from around the world, especially the young. The onset of a lymphoma and the resultant chemotherapy did not detract Rollo from continuing to work daily in his office until a few weeks before his death in May 2011 at the age of 96.

Sir Barry Jackson

Sources used to compile this entry: [Information from: Bull Am Coll Surg 2011 Nov;96[9]:47-52; Saint Louis University; personal knowledge.].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England